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‘Overcoat’ to take off

Panych's perf piece gets U.S. preem

TORONTO — Morris Panych’s critically acclaimed performance piece “The Overcoat,” which has already played throughout Canada, Europe and Australia, will finally make its American premiere Jan. 18 at the Bushnell Center in Hartford, Conn.

In collaboration with choreographer Wendy Gorling, Panych has created a work, based on the short story by Nikolai Gogol, that’s part dance, part drama and part mime.

Set to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, it tells the story of a clerk in 19th century Russia whose humdrum existence changes forever with the purchase of the eponymous garment.

The flamboyant piece of clothing transforms him into a free-spending libertine until his life finally comes crashing down in disaster.

Surreal, slapstick

Accompanied by the surreal scenic design of his longtime partner, Ken MacDonald, Panych stages the work as if it were a giant silent movie. The mixture of slapstick and pathos characteristic of Chaplin and Keaton fills the piece from beginning to end.

“The Overcoat” was first performed at the Vancouver Playhouse in October 1997 and toured to Toronto, Winnipeg and Ottawa in 2000.

Martin Bragg, artistic producer of CanStage, Toronto’s largest not-for-profit theater, took an early interest in the work and wanted to tour it around the world. With that in mind, he remounted it in Toronto in spring 2003 as part of the World Stage Festival, inviting presenters from around the world to attend.

Unfortunately, the SARS epidemic coincided with the festival, and none of the potential U.S. presenters showed up, with the exception of the Bushnell Center.

World interest

There was strong international interest, however, and 2004 saw the work playing London’s Barbican Center as part of the BITE (Barbican Intl. Theater Events) ’04 Festival, then touring to Norway for the Bergen Intl. Festival and finally winding up down under at the Adelaide Intl. Festival in Australia and the Wellington Intl. Festival in New Zealand.

The decision was made to launch the show in the U.S. at the Bushnell Center and let that production serve as the calling card that the Toronto run 18 months earlier was supposed to have been.

The Bushnell’s Belding Theater, where “The Overcoat” will be presented, is celebrating its 75th anni in 2005. The Hartford run of the show is expected to attract many of the presenters and media who failed to see the production in Toronto. To make the journey easier, a special “Overcoach” is being planned to transport VIPs from Manhattan to Hartford and back on press night.

Author-director Panych thereafter will fly back to Toronto immediately to finish helming the Canadian premiere of Richard Greenberg’s “Take Me Out,” opening Jan. 20.

He then heads to Vancouver, where his latest play, “The Dishwashers,” opens Feb.17, then back to Ontario to stage the opening show of the 2005 Shaw Festival season, “You Never Can Tell,” which starts previews April 24.

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